Blockchain on Campus: Universities Finding Their Role as Researcher and Promoter

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Blockchains and cryptocurrencies are still young. The ones in actual operation still have a range of teething problems and weaknesses, while they also lack the widespread adoption that would forcibly accelerate their development and provide an expanded testing ground for new technical solutions. There are, however, an increasing number of universities that have been opening groups, centers and laboratories dedicated to research into cryptocurrencies, and despite being young themselves, these promise to significantly advance the evolution of cryptocurrencies and blockchains.

Yet, pure research into distributed ledgers and currencies isn't the only thing such groups and labs are busying themselves with, since most of them have also taken on as much an advocacy and promotional role for crypto as a scientific one. And as research centers tend to be, many are funded by particular businesses with their particular interests and agendas, leading to questions as to whether or not the future of crypto will ultimately be sculpted for the greater good.

Taking the initiative

Perhaps the earliest and most well-known research group is MIT Digital Currency Initiative (DCI). It launched in April 2015 with the somewhat nebulous aim of bringing together "global experts in areas ranging from cryptography, to economics, to privacy, to distributed systems, to take on this important new area of research." Since then, it's been most famous for having an acrimonious spat with IOTA, after it published research last September that discovered an apparent vulnerability in IOTA's self-written hash function (which has since been patched).

More specifically, the DCI's activities are focused on several main areas: digital fiat currencies, verification protocols, the Lightning Network, decentralized autonomous electric microgrids and crypto education. Despite having such a focus, IOTA claimed in January that the group has "published very little peer-reviewed academic work," undermining the sense that it's producing much in the way of significant research.

A review of its published papers would back this claim up — to an extent — because, of the 11 listed on its website, only five appear to have been written by actual members of the group since they became members (and one of these — "Defending​ ​Internet​ ​Freedom​ ​through​ ​Decentralization" — is a report, rather than a peer-reviewed research paper). The rest were either published before the group was founded or were published by MIT authors who aren't actually members of the DCI (but nonetheless work on related topics).

That said, the DCI’s role in leading more open research on the Lightning Network means that its output can’t be quantified simply in terms of papers. Added to this, several of the 'non-DCI' papers listed reveal that the DCI still plays an influential role in informing MIT's wider academic output. For example, in "Catena: Efficient Non-equivocation via Bitcoin," the authors thank DCI director Neha Narula and the DCI itself for "the many productive conversations that shaped and improved this work." Similarly, in his master's thesis — "Blockchain: Digitally Rebuilding the Real Estate Industry" — Avi Spielman thanks "Michael Casey and Brian Forde of the MIT Digital Currency Initiative […] for introducing me to blockchain through their courses and activities."

In other words, even if the DCI isn't itself producing much in the way of groundbreaking research, it's acting as an important communicator of cryptocurrencies and blockchains, and — in the process — helping and inspiring those who produce important work later (e.g., Spielman's thesis went on to win the 2016 Govan Entrepreneurship Award from the MIT Center of Real Estate). And in fact, such communication is a recurring feature of much of the work of crypto research groups, if only because cryptocurrencies and blockchains are still too nascent to exist as separate scientific fields and attract substantial amounts of dedicated research. This is why groups like the DCI have to fill the void by also acting as proponents of crypto, so that other researchers, groups and departments will be more likely to work on crypto themselves.

One hand feeds the other

This can be seen with other notable research groups. Stanford University launched its very own Center for Blockchain Research in June, with its primary aim being to "support the thriving ecosystem by developing new technologies needed to advance the field." However, it will also operate "an extensive education and outreach program," which — among other things — will include the Stanford Blockchain Conference, public blockchain seminars, as well as courses for Stanford students and a free MOOC (massive open online course) for everyone else.

In the U.K., the University of Edinburgh launched its own laboratory in February 2017, in conjunction with Hong Kong-based blockchain R&D firm IOHK. While the lab revolves mostly around "cutting-edge, industry-inspired research in the area of distributed ledgers and their applications," it too was formed as "part of a global effort of IOHK to engage in basic research and academic outreach in the area of blockchain services."

Similarly, in Denmark, the IT University of Copenhagen opened the European Blockchain Center in June 2017, aiming to "generate and communicate knowledge about blockchains, which will happen in collaboration with other academic institutions as well as both private and public companies." Given that one of its central aims is to communicate about blockchains, it's no surprise that — in addition to its own research into smart contracts and KYC optimization — it also runs its own podcasts and its own introductory summer school on crypto in conjunction with the university's business school.

One member of the European Blockchain Center is Associate Professor Omri Ross, who's also a member of Copenhagen's HIPERFIT (Functional High-Performance Computing for Financial IT) research group. As he told Cointelegraph, the work conducted by HIPERFIT — which overlaps with blockchain research — has already been influential, despite the center having been launched only in 2010. "[The] HIPERFIT initiative led by Professor Henglein has produced ground-breaking research on the advancement of functional programming languages," he says. "Contributors include Associate Professor Elsman and Assistant Professor Oancea, who have joined us as advisors on the Firmo Protocol as well. Needless to say, this branch of research is highly technical."

As for the European Blockchain Center (EBC) itself, Ross explains that "the focus has been increasingly on socio-economic implications of disintermediation. Here, significant thought and effort have gone into establishing research areas in [such] topics as the decentralized business model and distributed governance." And, if anything, what such a broad focus highlights is that research into cryptocurrencies and blockchains is remarkably interdisciplinary, drawing in a wide variety of disciplines and underlining how crypto is likely to have an impact in multiple areas of life.

Appropriately enough, it will be the public outreach work of such groups as the EBC that will aid them in bringing a diversity of participants into blockchain research. According to Ross, this is why the research and educational activities of groups like the EBC "go hand-in-hand," since education feeds into research and vice versa. "We believe in producing a basis for the adoption of these nascent technologies, through rigorous academic studies," he says. "Building on years of academic tradition, our work is largely open-source and invites participation from a broad audience. Openness generally serves as a guiding principle for our work, which is why public events, such as the summer school, helps us in furthering the agenda in direct collaboration with representatives from various interest groups."

Private interests

So crypto research groups are responsible for propagating knowledge about blockchains as well as discovering such knowledge, but one other feature they generally share is that they are often created in partnership with other organizations or private companies. Stanford, for instance, was able to launch its research center after receiving 'gifts' from the Ethereum Foundation, Protocol Labs, the Interchain Foundation, crypto exchanges OmiseGO, DFINITY Stiftung and PolyChain Capital. Edinburgh's lab was opened in collaboration with IOHK, which is a private company that "builds cryptocurrencies and blockchains for academic institutions, government entities and corporations," and that also works on Cardano and Ethereum Classic.

Such relationships are present elsewhere in the world: In Russia, a blockchain research lab based at the National University of Science and Technology in Moscow was actually opened by Vnesheconombank — a state-owned bank. And in Hong Kong and Australia, a research lab launched jointly by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Monash University was supported by CollinStar Capital, a crypto-focused asset management and investment company that has also invested in Purdue University’s Blockchain Lab.

There is most likely nothing unusual or specifically wrong about such partnerships, not least because sponsorships and corporate funding are common throughout science and academia. However, they could raise the question of the direction and constraints of the research being conducted by these groups, since there are examples outside the crypto world to suggest that, in certain cases, corporate finance can distort study results.

In 1998, for instance, The New England Journal of Medicine published an influential article which found that researchers who endorsed the use of "calcium-channel antagonists" — medicines that inhibit the movement of calcium through the body — were much more likely to have received funding from pharmaceutical companies responsible for producing such antagonists. 96 percent of favourable authors had been financed by such companies, compared to 60 percent and 37 percent of neutral and critical authors, respectively. In 2013, a PLOS Medicine review article also discovered that authors with interests in the food industry were five times more likely to present a conclusion of no positive association between sugary drinks and obesity than those researchers without any interests.

Other, wider surveys have backed up such findings, with a 2012 paper on pharmaceutical research and a 2010 paper on multiple industries (tobacco, pharmaceutical, lead, vinyl chloride, and silicosis-generating industries) showing how corporations can manipulate research. They often do this by framing research questions, funding the research that specifically supports company interests, suppressing unfavourable research, framing the public conversation around research, or setting research standards to suit corporate interests. And in the case of the tobacco industry, the distortion of research is so acute that certain journals have now prohibited accepting studies by authors with industry links.

Decentralized protection against bias

It goes without saying that there's currently no evidence that corporate links and partnerships are distorting the work being produced by the emerging wave of crypto research groups, if only because most of these groups are still very young and haven't produced a significant number of studies. Still, it's clear that corporate influence on research is a present danger, and for a technology that prides itself on being decentralized and (relatively) free of vested interests, it's disconcerting that so many companies are getting involved in the production of research that will no doubt be formative for crypto.

At the beginning of June, this problem was underlined when Ripple donated $50 million to 17 research institutions as part of its University Blockchain Research Initiative (UBRI). These institutions included the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the University of Luxembourg in the U.K., both of which "are building a new blockchain research program inside their Departments of Computer Science and Engineering with the help of UBRI."

Now, while it makes perfect sense for a cryptocurrency company to support the kind of cryptographic research that made blockchains possible in the first place (e.g., Merkle Trees), there's a concern that Ripple's influence could sway this research in a direction more favorable to its interests than to those of 'crypto' as an abstract whole. Would it be willing to continue funding research that found flaws in its platform, or would it react strongly, much like the IOTA Foundation did when MIT's Digital Currency Initiative found a since-rectified bug in IOTA?

While this concern is understandable, there are some who believe that the unique, decentralized nature of crypto softens the risk of disproportionate corporate influence on research. Omri Ross explains:

"Throughout the past year, we have seen a proliferation of new projects, working groups, publications and organizations. Some are guided by the researcher’s perspective; others are for-profit ventures."

However, while an underlying or ulterior profit-motive may be a factor in certain university groups, Ross contends that work on distributed technologies naturally leans toward openness, thereby preventing specific interests from distorting research agendas too much. "For this exact reason, I don't see the usually implied dichotomy between research and industry in this field," he says. "As an example, note how even corporate ventures such as the IBM Hyperledger maintain a strong emphasis on open source community and decision making."

And because blockchain platforms are meant to operate in a distributed way and serve a distribution of needs, crypto research will necessarily be 'distributed' in how it serves the stakeholders involved, otherwise they would struggle to succeed. As Ross concludes, "The success of an organization working on blockchain technology is usually contingent on the success of the shared infrastructural layer. I believe this notion of voluntary collaboration to be the fundamental driving force behind the crypto revolution."

It may be too early in the life of crypto-focused research groups to corroborate or falsify this observation. However, given the success that cryptocurrencies and blockchains have already had in attracting a wide variety of individuals, companies, and institutions into their fold, it may just be that university blockchain centers will serve as yet another means by which crypto will help diverse groups of people reach consensus.